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The Bible. What's its purpose?
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QuaziWashboardOffline
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PostPosted: 22-07-2007 14:49    Post subject: The Bible. What's its purpose? Reply with quote

This question was asked by me in a different thread during a debate about what cirtain parts of the Bible actualy mean, and stuneville suggested we start a new thread on the subject. So here it is.
My question was, what is the purpose of the Bible? I've heard it described by many Christians to be kinda like an instruction manual for life.
What's everyone elses view?
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rynner
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PostPosted: 22-07-2007 16:25    Post subject: Reply with quote

Primarily, the Bible wasn't Christian - the Christian bits are tagged on at the back as the New Testament.

The Old Testament is a mix of Jewish legends and history, seen through the tinted lenses of their religion, which basically says their God is better than any one else's, and He chose them to be His people.

So its original purpose was to unify and stregthen the Jewish people by preserving and perpetuating these myths, legends, poetry, and rules for living - it's a sort of propaganda manual.

Since then it has become many things to many men - and the less they know about it (as opposed to knowing it by heart, say) the more stridently do they claim that it supports their interpretation of God's wishes for all mankind (not just the Jews).

Because it is such a mix of material and styles, it doesn't really have a coherent theme, but that doesn't stop many people finding one! Rolling Eyes

Thus they'll find a purpose where there is none at all.

The Bible is a fascinating book, seen from the point of view of history and literature, but as a manual for life it is probably less concise and useful than most of the self-help books you'll find in a bookstore.
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ghostdog19
PostPosted: 22-07-2007 17:02    Post subject: Reply with quote

The general view is that it is a sacred/holy book that forms the basis for the Christian faith. The Christian bible is the main reference for teaching, guidance and worship. In terms of it being an instruction manual for life, it's important to remember that the Bible consists of two parts, The Old Testament (OT) and The New Testament (NT). It is also important to remember that whilst Christianity acknowledges the laws of the Old Testament it doesn't mean those laws are applicable to Christians. This is where the New Testament comes into play, because it is here where we find that the stories of Jesus set about establishing a new covenant. Historically and traditionally, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy (the laws of the Pentateuch ... believed to have been written by Moses and hence why Genesis is sometimes called "the first book of Moses") have been denied as applying directly to Christians in whole. Hence why not everything in the OT is gospel (excuse the pun) according to Christians.

Confusing? It is. Which is probably why some Christians describe it as being kinda like an instruction manual for life. Aren't all instruction manuals confusing? Wink


Last edited by ghostdog19 on 22-07-2007 17:05; edited 1 time in total
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ghostdog19
PostPosted: 22-07-2007 17:04    Post subject: Reply with quote

rynner wrote:
as a manual for life it is probably less concise and useful than most of the self-help books you'll find in a bookstore.
That's more or less the conclusion I drew with regard to the 'instruction manual' comment. Laughing
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decipheringscarsOffline
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 00:45    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well, the less cynical version of what rynner says (most of which I agree with - and kudos for pointing out the the "Bible" is a diverse collection of books, and is predominately and originally Jewish/Hebrew) is that the texts collected as the "Bible" were human responses to their experiences of the divine, which were necessarily filtered through their local, social situation. So nationalist propaganda would definitely influence your experience of the divine in 8th-century BCE Israel. That doesn't mean the insights recorded in the Bible have no value beyond propaganda.

Additionally, the process of canonization (deciding which books are in and which are out) took a LONG TIME. The Hebrew Scriptures weren't fully canonized until AFTER the Christian Bible was! That's why the Catholic Bible has extra books in its Old Testament that the Protestant Bible doesn't. They were books in general circulation among Jews in the Greco-Roman diaspora, which were considered Scripture by the first Christians (and many or most of their contemporary Jews). Since they fit so well with Christian thinking, and they were composed in Greek instead of Hebrew, and other reasons, the Rabbis who settled the Jewish canon left them out. Martin Luther and other Protestants at the time of the Reformation discovered that the Hebrew Scriptures didn't contain those books now known as the "Apocrypha," and jettisoned them from the Protestant canon.

Not all of us Christians see the Bible as an "instruction manual for living." Many of us shudder to hear it spoken of that way. We think the Bible needs to be read in the light of both tradition and reason (some also add experience, but that's really part of reason). Hence, the popularized "three-legged stool" of my own tradition, Anglicanism: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. The 3-legged stool is a milking stool, meant to be the most stable support on rugged ground. If any of the legs is longer or shorter than the others, or if one is missing, you can't trust the stool. We recognize that "sola Scriptura" (only the Bible, a tenent of many Christians in the Reformed tradition) is an illusion - any reading (of any text) is an interpretation. The trick is to interpret responsibly, and you can only do that (1) in community (hence Tradition), and (2) intelligently (hence Reason), informed by experience.

I should also add that the Scriptures are considered by Christians to be a "living" text. This means that we keep wrestling with the texts; we keep finding new insights in them; and that we are in a relationship with the text such that its meaning is not static over time - the Bible doesn't necessarily say the same thing to us in the 21st Century as it did in the 17th. Primarily, that's because our situation has changed. Of course, it also has to do with advances in exegesis (determining what the text really says in its original languages and context) and hermeneutics (interpreting the text for the current context), including translation issues, textual analysis, historical analysis, new methodologies, etc.

In the opinion of many of us Christians, you disrespect the Bible if you refuse to criticize it, pick it apart, disagree with it sometimes, etc. We are in dialogue with it, and we bring something to the conversation. Other Christians think the Bible is basically static, and speaks to us one-way. I was raised in such a tradition, and it doesn't make sense to me.

BTW, another point to be made in response to rynner's post -

The Hebrew Scriptures, since they were written over such a long time period, can be seen to actually criticize themselves in places. The Prophets, for example, reinterpret the Law in ways that seem plain enough to us on this side of things, but at the time, they really were carrying a new interpretation forward and questioning their own tradition (refining it). You can also see edits of a sort, evidence that at one time the religion was henotheist (there are many gods but we worship this one): El was the "Most High God" and YHWH the local god. At some point people either figured out that there was only one God, or they simply identified their own god YHWH with El, the Most High, and now the Scriptures read as if all the names for God are synonyms. You can see some of this in the use of the word "elohim," which is plural (means "gods"), and sometimes rendered "the gods," referring to idols (i.e., gods that don't really exist), sometimes rendered "angels," and sometimes rendered "humans" - "sons of God," or "Israelites." It seems that all the pantheon of gods from the henotheistic period got demoted and became angels (which is possibly why the angels' names all end in "-el," which means "god"). Plus there's the figure of Satan ("ha satan" means "the adversary", or the prosecuting attorney) who starts out as an esteemed member of the heavenly court (cf. the Book of Job) and ends up the instigator of all evil, in cosmic rebellion against God. And there's a probable reference to a heavenly court in the opening chapter of Genesis ("let us make man in our image..."). In many ancient Near Eastern religions, the heavenly court consisted of all the lesser gods. At some point in the Bible, it's the angels - who also devolve from being terrifying, beastly figures to looking like men, to looking like winged women or babies in later Christian art. That's a complicated one, but it points to ancient religions' use of strange animals or conglomerations of animals to represent gods - something carried forward in the Christian tradition of representing the Gospellers (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) as a (winged) man, (winged) lion, (winged) bull, and eagle, respectively.

Anyway, it's that kind of editing that makes some people see propaganda, but I see just the opposite: the text wasn't considered so sacred that it couldn't be amended to match emerging insights - and, yes, sometimes a political agenda. The result is there will always be employment for Professors of Old Testament / Hebrew Scriptures. Very Happy
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QuaziWashboardOffline
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 09:09    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hmmm. This thread has only just started and already we're getting different answers, so one thing we know for cirtain is that it is different things to different people.
So if modern Christians don't have much to do with the Old Testament, why do they still bother to have it included in the Bible?
Is it to kinda say, 'Look, this is how we used to live....look how far we've come.' or is it more spiritual than that?
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coldelephant
PostPosted: 25-07-2007 12:37    Post subject: Reply with quote

From what I've just read above, the new testament was a christian thing added to the old testament which was a collection of hebrew stories.

So then the christians cobbled the whole lot together and called it the Bible and the religion christianity.

Which means that judaism was the religion behind it, so now I would like to know what was behind judaism.
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 16:22    Post subject: Reply with quote

QuaziWashboard wrote:
So if modern Christians don't have much to do with the Old Testament, why do they still bother to have it included in the Bible?


Apparently, you've never met a Christian fundamentalist. For the fundies, the gospels (first 4 books of the New Testament) may as well not exist (although the fundies do like the letters of Paul which make up a great deal of the New Testament).

The more extreme fundies are sometimes referred to as "Old Testament Christians."
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 16:57    Post subject: Reply with quote

Like all of these "self help/improvement" manuals....don't take it to literally!
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JamesWhiteheadOnline
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 19:24    Post subject: Reply with quote

The contents of the Bible are of great interest to literary antiquarians but a source of nothing but bother to others.

It's a substantial volume and should always be hard-bound so as to deliver a crushing physical blow to the heads of folks one disapproves of. Bashing opponents metaphorically is more common but it only tends to tickle them and prokove mirth in the audience

A Book of the Law really needs to be in a dead language, kept tethered in churches and interpreted solely by one hieratic priesthood. Once its nonsense is put into the vernacular, the mysterious authority dissipates and we are left to argue the toss about which rules actually count. If it is the Word of God, it seems to have been corrupted since Babel.

Which fundamentalists really banish their menstruating womenfolk from worship or their dwarfs? Which genealogy of Jesus are we meant to believe? Was he really born twice?


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rynner
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 22:19    Post subject: Reply with quote

decipheringscars wrote:
I should also add that the Scriptures are considered by Christians to be a "living" text. This means that we keep wrestling with the texts; we keep finding new insights in them; and that we are in a relationship with the text such that its meaning is not static over time - the Bible doesn't necessarily say the same thing to us in the 21st Century as it did in the 17th. Primarily, that's because our situation has changed. Of course, it also has to do with advances in exegesis (determining what the text really says in its original languages and context) and hermeneutics (interpreting the text for the current context), including translation issues, textual analysis, historical analysis, new methodologies, etc.

Yes, very good.

But the same sort of thing applies to other books. Consider the thousands of scholars who have made careers out of analysing and interpreting Shakespeare's works, or Tolkien's (or even, perhaps, in years to come) J.K.Rowlings'!

In all of literature you can find relevence to current situations, and insights into human nature and the relationships between human and other worlds.

And these insights do change over time, even in one persons lifetime. If I read a book at age 16, and re-read it at ages 30 and 60, I would find different points of interest in it each time.

What was new and startling when I was 16 becomes 'old hat' at later times, but by then I might have spotted further subtleties that my younger self had unknowingly skipped over.

So all literature has this multi-dimensional quality, and can be used to inform you, entertain you, surprise you, and puzzle you. All these facets enrich your life.

So, yes, the Bible does have these qualities, but that is because it is part of human literature. It would be a mistake to take it a a Manual for Living, just as it would be a mistake to use, say, Moby Dick in that way.

But despite the fact that various parts of Moby Dick do not accord with modern scientific ideas about biology or oceanography, it is still a cracking good read, and will add wonder and value to your life.

So, the Bible is a good book, but my hackles rise when it is described as the Good Book! There are thousands of others! Cool
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 22:32    Post subject: Reply with quote

QuaziWashboard wrote:
Hmmm. This thread has only just started and already we're getting different answers, so one thing we know for cirtain is that it is different things to different people.
So if modern Christians don't have much to do with the Old Testament, why do they still bother to have it included in the Bible?
Is it to kinda say, 'Look, this is how we used to live....look how far we've come.' or is it more spiritual than that?


I wouldn't say that modern Christians don't have much to do with the Old Testament. We give different weight to different parts of it, whether we admit it or not. The Old Testament is a LOT more than just the Levitical rules.

As I said in my previous post, it is a record of a people's experience of the divine. Christians descend (spiritually) from those people, so even though our tradition has evolved, there is still a lot of shared language and assumptions. We tend to recognize God in those texts, even if we have to make a few adjustments. For example, regarding this past week's lectionary reading from Amos, a priest at my church wrote a reflection for the leaflet that commented that the "doom & gloom" was a way of getting people's attention, not really meaning to say that God flies into a rage. It was a way to communicate the seriousness of the people's behavior (which for the prophets is usually about social justice issues - VERY relevant today).

The Psalms are an excellent book of poetry, reflecting the whole gamut of human emotion and placing it all in direct relationship with God. It's no wonder there's a very ancient tradition, starting from within Judaism and extending into Christianity as well, of praying the Psalms.

The wisdom literature - Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, Wisdom of Solomon, Sirach, and other books - do contain a lot of wisdom, granted, from an ancient culture. You have to make some adjustments sometimes. These books also give an interesting background to a lot of the New Testament. Paul seems to have relied quite heavily on the Wisdom of Solomon, among other texts.

The Song of Solomon (a.k.a. Song of Songs) is beautiful, erotic love poetry. It's been spiritualized, but it doesn't have to be.

And many of the stories are highly entertaining. One of the great aspects of the Hebrew Scriptures, for me anyway, is that the heroes are all regular people - they screw up left and right. They're not sanitized. Sometimes the text itself isn't quite sure what to make of a particular story.

Theologian Paul Tillich described "the Fall" as a "fall upwards," meaning that as we expand our technological knowledge, we gain no moral ground. An example was that if King David out of the Old Testament were to suddenly appear in our culture, he'd be absolutely lost - but he'd understand the same moral problems we continue to face. I think the same principle works backwards. When you read the Hebrew Scriptures, there's a lot of strangeness because the culture is so different. But you can really understand and relate to the characters, as they struggle with things like adultery, faithfulness (to God or to friends and family, e.g.), identity, feeling unprepared for a task, and so forth.

If the Old Testament is irrelevant, it's only become so very recently (and many of us haven't noticed). It still remains part of the vernacular in many ways, and has greatly influenced our language, literature, and other aspects of our culture (e.g., the metaphor of David & Golliath, the word/concept of "shibboleth," the phrase, "In the beginning..."). With fewer people in church these days, some of that is beginning to fade. But, to cite Tillich again, he said that the West is a Christian culture not in the sense that everybody's a Christian, but in the sense that Christianity has framed our questions. We think along the lines that Christianity has set: whether we agree or disagree with the content Christianity has provided, the structure remains. You can say that about the Hebrew Scriptures, as filtered through Christianity, as well. To take the most basic example, if you don't believe in God in the West, the God you don't believe in will be the Christian God, possibly also the Jewish God (to the extent that they're conceived differently). You probably haven't bothered much to not believe in a completely different God, such as Ra, or Krishna, or even Descartes' Evil Genius. That's not to say you believe in them; you just won't have expended much energy in denying any properties of their divinity. You'll have focused on omnipotence, omniscience, immutability Trinitarianism, and the like. (Although Christians sometimes take issue with some of those traits too!)
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PostPosted: 25-07-2007 22:51    Post subject: Reply with quote

Isn't that one of the things about people who prize the contents of one book amongst all others? It gives them a fixed point around which the rest of the Universe seems to turn? So that some Sacred Texts reflect a sort of pre-Copernican World view?

Of course, most of our ancestors only had access to the contents of one Sacred Text, or a meta-Text of texts, in the case of the Bible. For many, that Text, with which they were brought up, is the only one. That Belief System the only true one, all others being false, or misguided.

Indeed, for a great part of it's Christian history, the Bible's believers only had access to its text at second hand, filtered through one of it's priestly interpreters. Even then, much of the text was spoken aloud in a dead language, incomprehensible to most of those who heard it. They had to make do with the simple tales they were allowed to hear in their native tongues. Even centuries after the Reformation, it's still subjected to a wheen of interpretation, by Holy Experts, with varying qualifications and differing points of perspective.

But, now we have easy access to the Sacred Texts of many different religious traditions and cultures, as well as the oral traditions, of some cultures which did not write their beliefs down, whether by accident, or design.
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PostPosted: 27-07-2007 12:51    Post subject: Reply with quote

From reading the above posts, it is clear to me that the purpose of the bible is largely subjective. It serves as a kind of catalyst in shaping and reinforcing certain prejudices that the reader may have beforehand. The pricipal of GIGO - Garbage In, Garbage Out - seems to apply: hate gays, women, foreigners? Look in the bible, and you'll see every justification you'll ever need for your hatreds.

On the other hand, it is entirely reasonable to assume that someone seeking a 'solid' basis for their ideas pertaining to justice, mercy and love (the reference to Blake's Divine Image is no accident, though a tad pretentious, I'll admit) will again find what they need - and perhaps, hopefully, they will be inspired to do great works by it. Unfortunately, it also means the truly hateful - the Phelpses and Chicks of this world, not to mention a number of serial killers bearing a grudge against prostitutes - will find a surpreme and unchallengeable 'moral' foundation for their hatreds. On the whole, I'm sure it would be better if the bible were not there at all: the great and the good will continue to do great and good, while the nasties might just have enough room for doubt, and a disinclination, therefore, to indulge their unseemly ways. I'm not saying that the world would be a paradise without the bible (the same goes for the koran, too) but it might make it just a little bit more tolerable.
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PostPosted: 29-07-2007 13:27    Post subject: Reply with quote

Is there a deep-seated need for some people to have a belief system which makes judgement calls easier and establishes a protocol for their lives?
If so, the Bible would act as a manual providing such a thing.

I have heard that there are many levels of teaching contained within the book and at level 2, beyond the realm of simple narrative, it becomes heavily metaphorical. I cannot claim to fully understand the complexity of The Bible until I have understood the deeper levels of meaning and teachings contained within its texts so I'm not about to deride it. Having said that, there are plenty other books and ways to experience a personal enlightenment.

It seems a shame that many Christians do not take the opportunity to reveal the deeper meanings, concentrating instead on how The God Book makes them feel safer, happier and more comforted so therefore it surely must have the same effect on everyone else. And I must say I am a tad confused by some Christians who regard it as a 'living' manuscript open to different interpretation according to the times although I can see why this approach would neatly sidestep some of the enormous contradictions within it.
But what if you suddenly conclude that none of it is relevant?
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